Body in Motion

December 5, 2009, 6:39 pm
Filed under: africa, culture, home, kenya, Malawi, malawian culture

I am in a class that feels reminiscent of high school, except I am surrounded by colleagues instead of the kids I grew up with. The scene is the same though, half of us pay attention, a few participate; I think poorly of the instructor.

But suddenly I am awake and listening in Public Speaking 101.

A Malawian colleague asks what we say if someone asks a question after a presentation that we do not know the answer to.

“Just say you don’t know and you’ll have to check and get back to the person,” the instructor offers.

A look of horror fills faces.

“You can’t do that. You can’t say you don’t know. How can people believe you know what you’re talking about if you say you don’t know?”

“That’s true,” says another classmate. “You should just keep talking for awhile without answering the question.”

The Malawian heads in the room are nodding in agreement.

My mind tumbles back over the last two and a half years to all the the talking heads which seem to go on endlessly, to the times (I know of) that I have been lied to. It wasn’t a neo-colonialist attempt to fraud or please the mzungu, but rather a balking at admission of ignorance. How did I not know this? The three days I have spent listening to those around me discuss the merits of PowerPoint suddenly become worth it as I have one of those bizarre moments of cultural epiphany that makes sense of everything – at least for a moment.

These moments in my world of late are few and far between.

When I first came to Africa ten years ago, I spent the month of my arrival in a haze. There were herds of cows on the side of the urban highway, my housekeeper was always telling me I’d been lost when I came home late and people in the street called me mzungu. In the months following my emergence from the haze, things began to make sense.

That first stint, a new kind of logic came fast and furious. I learned how the line between urban and beyond is blurred. I discovered that in Swahili umepotea (you have been lost) is what you tell someone when you haven’t seen them in awhile. I accepted that I will always be mzungu. I became accustomed to jumping out the side of a matatu (minibus) on a Nairobi street corner, and ate -and liked!- Peptang instead of ketchup, and coveted the Sunday morning quiet when the rest of our houseful of people was in church. I made plans with friends ahead of time since the phone lines could never be trusted to work.

I fell in love over and over again: with savanna sunsets, with fish markets, with tiny pink bananas.

While my moments of confusion became farther between, there were always gaps. I never understood why, when I saw Bowfinger in a Nairobi cinema, everyone laughed at the scene where the Mexicans purposted corssing the border illegally are herded into the back of the film crew truck. Did the Kenyans know about Mexicans sneaking in the US? Was the scene intrinsically funny without the cultural context? Or were they laughing at some other connection I wasn’t aware of?

I learned more about cultural context in the time I lived with Kenyans in Nairobi than I have since then. Each country has its own idiosyncrasies but there are commonalities to be found in each region of Africa. Yet when I moved here from Congo, it was difficult to conceptualize how completely different a place Malawi is from where I had been.

Throughout m time in Africa, my sense of normalcy has remained in tact and the places I have lived have seemed for familiar to me than foreign, if only by virtue of being the places I have spent my time. Epiphanies about where I live don’t come so often: who marvels at the man selling bananas on the corner after passing him 4 times a days for months on end?

I have been in Malawi for nearly two and a half years now, longer than I have spent anywhere since I finished my education. There are things I understand from having lived and worked in the region before. Women don’t talk about their pregnancies, especially before they are showing. There are things I have learned since coming here. Malawians see the government as their parent. And there are things that I don’t even know I don’t understand.

In moments like the Public Speaking class, I am struck by how truly I am a stranger here.


Malawi Annals
March 30, 2009, 6:32 pm
Filed under: culture, development, elections, Malawi, malawian culture, politics

The Afrobarometer has just released some new data on how Malawians see themselves, their government, the state of the country and their political system and it’s pretty telling.

A quick peek at the new survey data shows that Malawians overwhelmingly see government as their parent – not their employee, that over 70% of those surveyed believe the government has the right to close a newspaper, that 74% claim to have voted in the last presidential election and that food supply is the biggest problem Malawians think is facing the country. And if you want a sneak preview of May’s elections, most say that if the elections were tomorrow, they’d support the incumbent, Bingu wa Mutharika. They’ve even given him an 83% approval rating.

Having lived here for some time, I am not too surprised by these survey results but they do seem to highlight the influence of the early direction a young democracy takes in its development.

Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s first post-independence leader, did his best to set the stage for many of these beliefs. A 1964 Time article on the fledgling leader, just 9 weeks into his thirty-odd year term as President for Life and Ngwazi (Great Lion), alludes to a ban of public meetings (remember when I mentioned this as the reason that Lilongwe is so spread out?), Banda’s invention of himself as a father-figure to the country, and his autocratic leadership style. Let us not forget: this is the man who banned television.

After an entire generation and then some grew up with these beliefs, it is any wonder that 73% of Malawians believe that the government shouldn’t allow contrary views to its own?

With the elections scheduled less than two months off, it’s worth taking a breath to ask how democracy shapes itself. The root of support for the current president isn’t much of a secret. Malawians list food shortages as their biggest concern; Mutharika started a fertilizer subsidy program that has kept Malawi stocked in maize, the main staple, with enough to left over to keep the export market going and a healthy stream of forex coming. Most people believe the elections will be reasonably free and fair which leads one to believe that Malawians will get the president the majority of them elect.

While support for a politician across regional and tribal lines may be something relatively new around here, it doesn’t mean that a maturing African democracy will look much like what we see in the Northern Hemisphere. Fifteen years into a multi-party democracy doesn’t provide a lot of history to stand on and many Malawians are still displeased by the way primaries were set up for parliamentary and local elections. This year’s presidential race aside, over 70% of Malawian believe it’s difficult to have their voices heard outside of an election year (though I would guess most Americans would say the same).

What’s telling is that 30% of Malawians believe that the country should try another form of government. Banda may have fought hard to keep China out of Malawi, but today’s government has welcomed the Chinese with open arms and coffers. In the post-Cold War era, the lines drawn in the sand between friend and foe look are a different shade entirely.

Chances are, Malawi will continue down the road with some form of democracy -hopefully guided by Malawians themselves- though this Westerner struggles to understand how a democracy with a populace that doesn’t believe in freedom of thought will achieve what its citizens strives for: food security, a water supply, an end to poverty and economic development.

October 3, 2008, 5:07 pm
Filed under: colonialism, culture, development, drc, music, roads, travel

When the Malawian dust alongside the road fades to the Mozambican, it’s hard to notice the difference. But as soon as you pull into Mocuba, the first town on the Mozambican side of the border, the mud road widens into a dilapidated boulevard and the once-graceful Colonial Portuguese buildings lean their roofless walls into one another. Only the cathedral survived the war in-tact.

Mozambique is like a cross between Lebanon and Congo, with trees growing tall out the tops of long-abandoned buildings amongst the empty remnants of a polished town. The fingerprint of post-Colonial war is the common thread, with handicapped children playing the parts on this mock-up set of a thriving settlement.

Once you reach the coast though, all bets are off. The Mozambican character is so unbelievably unlike the Malawian. For as much as the war played a role in this place’s development -or lack thereof- the Mozambicans are full of life, music and style. Both men and women wander the streets on a night out with a background of Portuguese dance music lulling the body into a smooth glide over the customary jaunt.

The war feels farther away here though supposedly there are still landmines in the surrounding hills. There is a generation who missed school and literacy rates are staggeringly low.

That being said, Mozambique has one of the fastest growing economies in the region. With broad freshly-tarred roads expanding before the eyes, you can’t help wonder what the Malawians have against street lamps that the Mozambicans don’t.

It’s a whirlwind of cultural collision;, making it difficult to believe two places could share such a lengthy border. But Lake Malawi, the pride of the western shores, is hardly heard of in Mozambique, where the Indian Ocean glitters for over a thousand miles. It’s hard to say what has formed the diverging character of these two neighbors: the sea, the Colonial powers that occupied them (a culture of modest tea-drinking Scottish missionaries versus one of stained glass cathedrals with Mediterranean wine), or simply the innate differences that form the character of two siblings, close in age but nevertheless, far apart.

The dust of the road crossing back into Malawi obscures the lingering taste of fresh prawns and it’s not long before the smell of the sea is gone from the nostrils. It’s only the fingerprints whose touch remains, with a Cathedral standing tall, amongst the battery around it.

Trashcan Environmentalism
June 26, 2008, 1:40 pm
Filed under: air travel, appropriate technology, culture, environment, home

Living in a country other than one’s own, some cultural differences stand out more than others.

Lately, these differences have led to me to spend a lot of time thinking about trash. The streets of Lilongwe are fairly clean compared with Kinshasa or Nairobi – or even New York when I was growing up. But every time I’m on a field trip, driving though Malawi’s beautiful savanna countryside, someone in the vehicle rolls down the window to toss a piece of garbage out. Even my gardener leaves a pile of trash in the back corner of the garden despite the presence of a trash bin not 50 feet away.

I grew up in the coming of age of environmentalism in the US, when global warming still had to be proven and Tom Selleck did primetime specials on using fluorescent lightbulbs. My family had blue recycling bins for newspaper, cans and bottles. We insulated our windows in winter to conserve heat and re-used plastic containers. I cut up soda can ties so when the landfill got washed into the ocean, fish wouldn’t get caught in the plastic. I was green.

Now I live in a country where the principles of environmentalism follow different rules. There is no recycling center in a 500-miles radius but the useful life of any object far exceeds that which is expected in America. Shoes are repaired endlessly and anything that’s not already totally dilapidated is reused. In the case of dilapidation, the parts are consumed for integration into the reuse of other things.

And my carbon footprint? Even harder to say. While the average American’s food travels about 2500 miles from source to table, mine doesn’t come from much farther than a few hundred kilometers – but then I’m on enough long haul flights a year to get shunned by GreenPeace for all eternity.

So what now? I’m turning old wine bottles into glasses and vases. We have a lively vegetable garden. But when I go back to the US, I forget the milk carton doesn’t get lumped in with the rest of the trash. For the moment, I’m going to focus on stopping my teammates from rolling down the window of our gas-guzzling Land Cruiser and tossing their trash onto Malawi’s undeveloped grasslands.

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10 Things You Should Know Before Coming to Africa
March 18, 2008, 5:28 pm
Filed under: africa, culture, driving, electricity, roads, travel

I recently discovered that a friend of mine who’s never been to Africa before will be moving to Malawi with the Peace Corps in a couple of months. In honor of his impending arrival, I give you The Basics: 10 Things You Should Know Before Coming to Africa.

10. There are children everywhere: in the village playing, in the city begging, in the river washing (a few of them are in school, too).

9. There are people everywhere. People live life  outside from cooking and washing to socializing and working. And if you’re over 18 and still alone in the world, they want to know why you’re not married/reproducing yet.

8. Not matter how far in the bush you are, you can always find a cold beer. And 5 guys waiting for you to buy them one too.

7. The following items are considered legitimate supplies for vehicle repair: twigs, cardboard, tree sap.

6. Toilet paper in public restrooms is about as scarce as Democrats in the current administration.

5. The phrase ‘time is money‘ has no meaning. Be prepared to spend most of your time waiting for a bus/your lunch/your bill/a meeting/change. Note: change will never come. If you overpay for something, that’s your problem. The overage will be consumed by the business.

4. Never assume anything. This includes but is not limited to ‘yes’ meaning ‘yes’, ‘no’ meaning ‘no’, ‘I understand’ meaning ‘I have processed what you said and will act upon it’, a right indicator meaning a right turn, a business being open during regular hours, or a confirmed reservation meaning your hotel room/restaurant table/plane seat will still be there when you arrive.

3. Traffic laws are optional. (What’s the difference between a drunk driver and a sober one? Only the drunk driver goes straight, the sober one goes around the potholes.)

2. Electricity is optional. It generally goes out when you’re about to cook dinner. It will take between 10 minutes and 3 days to come back on and will blow out your speakers with a power surge when it does. (What did Africans do for light before candles? They had electricity!)


1. Just when you think you finally have her figured out, Africa turns around and bites you in the ass. But hell, I still wouldn’t live anywhere else — for now.